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Tuesday, 25 November 1986
Page: 3621

Ms JAKOBSEN —Is the Minister for Social Security aware of a report in the National Times on Sunday claiming that up to 120,000 Australians are receiving unemployment benefits to which they are not entitled? Are these reports accurate?

Mr HOWE —The headline in the National Times on Sunday was a highly misleading headline which does nothing for the integrity of that newspaper. It certainly damages the overwhelming majority of people who are unfortunate enough to be going through a period of unemployment but are in no sense out to cheat the system or do anything other than fulfil the rules as they apply in relation to unemployment benefit. I believe this Government is pursuing the question of fraud in relation to social security in a very thoughtful, systematic and scientific manner. If we are going to pursue the question of social security fraud, as far as possible we ought to be selective. That is what the Government determined. A great deal of work went into the approach that would be taken before the announcement was made within the Budget context and the selective review undertaken.

The basis of the story is that a small number of areas were selected because they were regarded as high risk areas. Clients who were regarded as high risk clients have been interviewed. We are talking about a review not of hundreds of thousands but of 2,719 people on unemployment benefits, of whom 677 had their benefits terminated. That proportion was predicted in the planning of the exercise. It is not the basis on which to extrapolate about the unemployed population as a whole. Anyone who does that is simply seeking to misrepresent the facts and to delude the Australian public about the extent of the problem and, on the other side, the extent of the savings that might be achieved.

No one in this Parliament is more responsible for spreading such misrepresentations than the honourable member for Richmond. Apart from the misrepresentation of that fact-the honourable member clearly has neither the wit, the intelligence nor the resources to establish facts and to come up with a figure that has any credibility-in terms of his media release of 23 November we see a number of other errors of fact to which I would like to refer very briefly. He said in the course of this article-I warn people in the Press Gallery about believing anything that goes out in the form of a Press release representing itself as fact--

Mr Spender —Madam Speaker--

Madam SPEAKER —Order! The Minister will not cast aspersions on the honourable member for Richmond.

Mr Spender —That was the point I was going to raise, Madam Speaker. Thank you very much.

Madam SPEAKER —The Minister will withdraw the comment he made. Under the Standing Orders, he will not cast aspersions upon any member of this House.

Mr HOWE —I withdraw. Let me go to the facts. I think I have clearly explained that one cannot talk on the basis of 120,000, a figure that was mentioned in the National Times article and referred to by the honourable member for Richmond. He also said that Labor had cut the number of Social Security field officers by 64. Labor has in fact increased the number by 130. In fact, an extra 600 staff have been assigned to service the Social Security Budget initiatives, over and above the staff existing within the Department.

It is also wrong to suggest that field officers do not have the power to investigate welfare fraud. Under the Act clients must answer questions put to them in writing by our officers. It is wrong to say, as has been frequently asserted by the honourable member for Richmond, that Labor has abolished the work test. That is simply not true. The work test has been enforced under this Government in a way in which it was certainly never enforced under the previous Government. It is wrong to say that Labor let personal lodgment lapse. The previous Government withdrew from the pursuit of personal lodgment. It is wrong to say that we have not enforced Commonwealth Employment Service registration. Under this Government-indeed, under the legislation-people not registered with the CES will not get their benefit.

I believe that any objective analysis of what this Government has been about will indicate that it has done more than any other government, in terms of social security fraud and in terms of taxation fraud, to ensure that people do not receive payments to which they are not entitled or do not avoid taxation which they have a responsibility to pay. The climate that has developed within the Opposition, whereby so frequently one refers to misrepresentation rather than the development of policies, is a very serious problem for this Parliament and for this country.

I do not think the hypocrisy of the Opposition in any area with respect to fraud is more clearly represented than when we come to the Australia Card. Here is a policy issue or approach which has been developed by this Government and which seeks to go to the heart of the identity problem which arises in social security and in the taxation system. A number of honourable members on the opposite side of the House-spokesmen; men in the leadership-suggested, on the one hand, that they were committed to the Australia Card and saw it as fundamental to the pursuit of fraud but, when it suited them, for opportunistic reasons turned away from that course. Let me say that, with respect to the dignity of people who are unfortunate enough to be on social security benefit in this country, it does nothing to have this continual misrepresentation of the facts by the Opposition.